Happy New Year to all readers, insofar as this is possible given the current worrying situation! The feeling in many quarters that things are out of control can rarely have been so pronounced. Since the last blog post in mid-December, the intertwined Covid and political situations have been a rollercoaster, and just when you think the government can’t get any worse, it does. Besides the alarming rise of Omicron and an NHS crisis of a magnitude the government refuses to recognize, December was dominated by the succession of damaging revelations of lockdown breaches in official circles, leading to palpable anger amongst those who obeyed the rules, and knife edge discussions as to whether Christmas and New Year plans should go ahead. As we know, they did, mostly so the government and right wing press can say ‘Boris saved Christmas’, then New Year, when such plans are bound to lead to a Covid spike later this month. This was presented as throwing ‘a lifeline’ to the hospitality industry without registering that the lifeline for hospitality contributes to its deletion for others.
The Cabinet has now met twice to discuss ‘restrictions’ (as one clinician has observed, this libertarian narrative language needs changing to ‘precautions’), looking strong in some eyes and weak in others for sticking rigidly to Plan B, which is only selectively implemented anyway. Who hasn’t seen numerous individuals in shops, supermarkets and public transport sans mask? Health Secretary Sajid Javid had the nerve to criticize the other three nations for their safety measures when it’s actually the Westminster government demonstrating recklessness and doing far less that other European countries too. Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford said ‘The outlier here is not Wales – Boris Johnson has failed to take the necessary action to protect people in England from Covid’. Instead, we get macho posturing of ‘riding out Omicron’ and sanctimonious repetitions about not ‘overwhelming the NHS’ when it’s clear the NHS has been overwhelmed for weeks.
Ministers have a strange definition of ‘overwhelmed’, when you factor in 11 hours wait for an ambulance in some areas of the country, staff on their knees and experiencing unmanageable stress and daily deaths now creeping up beyond 300. An NHS consultant writing anonymously said: ‘Boris Johnson “know[s] the pressures on everyone in our NHS”. But does he really? Has he got any idea of the exhaustion, burnout and low morale that I see and feel every day? The dread that my colleagues and I express as we talk about what this winter holds in store, again? How it feels to be potentially facing yet another wave?’
Disgracefully, the PM’s words reveal just how distant he really feels from the coalface: ‘We have a chance (?!!) to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again… hospitals at the moment are sending out signals saying that they are feeling the pressure hugely (yes, as indicated at least by the 24 trusts having declared a critical incident) and there will be a difficult period for our wonderful NHS for the next few weeks because of Omicron … I just think we have to get through it as best as we possibly can’ (aka ‘as best they can because I will be well away from it’). The 5m plus waiting for surgery, some of it urgent, must be in despair at how much longer they could have to wait, their condition worsening in the interim. Pressure is increasing on the unvaccinated because they’re the ones taking up most of the ICU beds, though, in contrast to some European countries, the government still has no intention of mandating vaccination. The question does have to be asked – to what extent should some notions of personal liberty take precedence over the urgent public health needs?
It borders on sinister that the media is mostly colluding with this narrative that the NHS can ‘manage’ when accounts given elsewhere by clinicians reflect the despair many are feeling. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘I am struggling to get my head around this. The NHS is on a war footing. The military is being called in. But pubs are open, mask-wearing is not being enforced and NHS staff are still not getting decent PPE. You literally cannot make sense of incoherence of this sort’. Broadcaster and palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke tweeted: ‘As the NHS scrambles with tents & portakabins to create Covid surge capacity, never forget that since 2010, the NHS has endured the longest & deepest financial squeeze in its history. A political choice, not an economic necessity. It has deadly consequences’. It’s also alarming that the PM doesn’t intend the Cabinet to meet to discuss public health measures until much later this month, a further signal of ‘riding out Omicron’ (aka ‘you’re on your own’) despite the cost.
The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, produced a typically comical picture of the risible stances taken by the Covid Recovery Group, pointing up the inappropriate reliance on ‘luck’ to ‘ride out’ Omicron. ‘It’s come to something that surviving this episode of the pandemic will come down to luck rather than scientific judgement. Then Boris will be Boris. Steve Baker and Mark Harper, two hardline members of the CRG, invited Boris to end all restrictions now. In their world, it is their bravery in standing up to Omicron that had forced it into being weaker than Delta. Had the government imposed another lockdown, Omicron would have been inspired to be a much stronger variant’.
Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani epitomized the cynical strategy lying behind this laissez faire failure to act: ‘The gaslighting cycle: SAGE: Don’t wait till hospital admissions to rise to act or it’ll be too late. Govt/media: -‘too much uncertainty’/’mild’/’need more data’ -‘SAGE modelling wrong’ -‘closely following the data’ (what data? PCRs/LFD capacity reached) -‘hosps mostly incidental’ -‘too late now’!’ What’s increasingly being realized is that this strategy kills two birds with one stone for Boris Johnson, or so he thinks – placating his vociferous libertarian wing and running down the NHS to the extent that it will ‘have to be’ privatized, a long term goal of Tory administrations. Nearly 36,000 NHS staff were off work last week – up 41% on the previous week – how is this sustainable? Yet besides Covid a key underlying cause is the government’s failure to invest in the workforce over years. I think it would be a salutary experience for ministers to volunteer at hospitals (mopping floors, cleaning toilets and the like, not photocalls) to see what life at the NHS ‘coalface’ is really like. It’s shaming that the army has had to be brought in and I wonder what (since I’ve seen no coverage of it) what army personnel think about being asked to prop up the NHS and the supply chain because of government failures.
This didn’t stop a former Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt, increasingly treated as a sage by our media, speaking about a report showing ‘the government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis. The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 vacancies and no sign of any plan to address this’. This and similar opinions have been expressed apparently without any sense of his own responsibility for the policies leading to the current crisis.
The instruction for secondary school children to wear masks again as the new term started this week is yet another example of reactive kneejerk policymaking – the announcement was only made the day before and despite the bluster of Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi it’s clear very little has been done over the intervening months to ventilate school buildings. The best he could do was to invoke the ‘Blitz spirit’ and suggest impracticable measures like combining classes, immediately dismissed by education experts.
The government is also ignoring the dangers of Long Covid, which has around 200 potential symptoms, and which leads many to feeling debilitated for months on end, possibly years, it may turn out. There’s limited provision for Long Covid patients in the NHS, but no problem if you have a few thousand to spare, as some retreat centres have capitalized on this opportunity to offer treatment in luxurious settings. ‘In September, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in the UK currently suffer with long Covid, while between July and August, only 5,737 people were referred to specialist NHS clinics. With the Omicron variant threatening more lives, there’s a gap in the market for long-Covid care, and plenty of private practitioners are happy to fill it – for a price’.
‘In ascending order of eye watering, there’s: the Park Igls Fit After Covid “therapeutic module” in Austria for £3,000 a week; the RAKxa long Covid programme in Thailand at £2,893 for three nights; and the Arrigo Long Covid Healing Programme in Somerset, £2,500 a day (minimum seven-day stay). Then there’s VivaMayr, where patients can exercise in the Alpine air, jump into the icy lake and have frequent massages to help them relieve their symptoms’. Some patients clearly benefit from treatments like ‘acupuncture on a heated bed covered in flower petals, then a bath with magnesium flakes’ but the doctors involved admit there’s still much we don’t know about this syndrome, how it exposes health inequalities and political polarities – neoliberal ideology of self-responsibility versus state provision of health services.
Meanwhile, ministers might not be thanking their boss for instructing them to prepare ‘contingency plans’ for the 25% workforce shortages when this situation has been of his own making. More than 90 care home operators in England have declared a red alert over staffing, which must be desperately worrying for vulnerable residents’ families and we see daily staff shortages everywhere, from reduced public transport services to reduced opening hours in restaurants and museums, etc.
Our Prime Minister was so invisible over the break (but surely it shouldn’t be a break for government given the current situation) that a good number of social media users were prompted to ask ‘Where is Boris?’ Asked this question by a journalist, the PM seemed to bluster and hesitate (some had believed he’d been in Mustique) before laughing sheepishly ‘I’ve been in this country’. He clearly hadn’t been rehearsing his parliamentary performance, as evidenced by the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the year, pretty much a car crash. As Keir Starmer had tested positive again, he faced Labour deputy Angela Rayner, who gave him a thrashing. The exchange was dissected by John Crace, who, like various other media sources outed the four lies Johnson resorted to without (again) challenge from the Speaker. Challenged by Rayner on inflation now running at 6% when in October he’d said fears of inflation were without foundation, he initially ummed and erred but then denied having said it. ‘From that point on, Johnson was pretty much lost, careering from one car crash to the next. In between wittering on about cold weather payments and the warm home discount – he claimed it was worth £140 a week: it isn’t, it’s £140 a year, though this was probably less a lie and more total ignorance – he just bounced from one lie to the next causing ever greater self-harm’. Given the insult to Parliament and MPs this conduct delivers, it’s strange and inexcusable that the Speaker doesn’t call out these untruths –surely something John Bercow would have done.
Sleaze didn’t take either a Christmas or New Year break, with revelations rolling in ‘at pace’ (to use that well-worn government phrase), the latest being the gullible Lord Geidt’s exoneration of Boris Johnson over the saga of the Downing Street flat refurbishment. It seems to me that the heads of all these whitewash inquiries should be questioned and hauled over the coals in the same way the alleged perpetrators of the inciting misdemeanours are meant to be. How predictable that messages between the PM and the refurbishment funding peer Lord Brownlow (clearly showing the link between this funding and the promise to look at Brownlow’s Great Exhibition plans) weren’t available during Geidt’s investigation because of a replaced phone. This, when everyone knows WhatsApp threads can be retrieved for the new phone.
The PM’s letter of apology for conveniently overlooking and excluding these messages is a luxury he could ‘afford’ since by then the exoneration was in the bag. We understand Lord Geidt is now being pressed to re-open his investigation but can we have any faith in his skills? What authority and weight can such investigations carry when they never fail to exonerate the guilty parties despite plenty of evidence to condemn them? It’s also a huge waste of public time and money. Another side-effect of the continuing ‘sleaze’ is that people will be far less likely to comply with further restrictions, should they be introduced, especially lockdowns when Downing Street and others were enjoying parties during previous ones.
You have to wonder about the level of cognitive dissonance in ministers who get the media round gig every day, the struggle to defend the obvious sleaze becoming more challenging day by day. On Friday morning it was the turn of Business Minister Paul Scully, who tried to deny that the two issues (of refurbishment funds and the donor’s exhibition plans) were linked, this link indicating corruption. Green MP Caroline summed up the reactions of many on Twitter: ‘One of the many depressing consequences of having a PM who is corrupt, venal & deceitful is that it infects all around him. Ministers who were once presumably pretty decent are sent out every day to defend the indefensible & they do it. Where’s their self respect?’ Where indeed?
The honours system came in for predictable flak, when this week it emerged that 25% of Tory donors had received one. What a surprise. The number of honours rolled out at least twice a year is surely contributing to a situation whereby it will be unusual not to be a knight or a dame. The strongest reaction, though, was disbelief and anger at Tony Blair receiving the highest order of the knight category (Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the oldest and most senior order of chivalry), interestingly decreed by the Palace and not Downing Street. It’s still not clear why this decision was taken but already thousands have signed a petition asking for the knighthood to be rescinded. Many were also incredulous that Speaker Lindsay Hoyle defended this award, adding that this was the toughest job and that all prime ministers should be similarly honoured. ‘Whatever people might think, it is one of the toughest jobs in the world and I think it is respectful and it is the right thing to do, whether it is to Tony Blair or to David Cameron. They should all be offered that knighthood when they finish as prime minister…I would say if you’ve been prime minister of this country, I do believe the country should recognise the service they’ve given’. Surely the key question there is have they actually given service? Or have they simply used the position for their own interests and self-aggrandisement? One of the objectors tweeted: ‘No honours should be automatic. There are few effective controls on bad politicians and especially PMs. Withholding an honour is one of the few (if pathetic) options left. The honours system anyway needs a complete rethink. It’s too biased to certain types of people/professions’.
As the Ghislaine Maxwell trial reached its conclusion and guilty verdict, the pressure further builds on Prince Andrew, his lawyers still trying to get him off the Virginia Giuffre law suit on a technicality. While many have been askance at Maxwell’s brother, Ian Maxwell, being interviewed on Radio 4 for the second time, some important questions not receiving much coverage are raised by journalist Jonathan Freedland. One is ‘how many others enabled the travelling child abuse ring that Epstein and Maxwell operated, turning a blind eye to what was surely obvious’? The black book of Maxwell/Epstein contacts citing the powerful and (so far) protected enablers and participants could yet be opened. Freedland challenges the stance that wicked behaviours can only stem from systemic failures.
‘There was an echo of it in the closing argument from Maxwell’s defence lawyer, when she asked “why an Oxford-educated, proper English woman would suddenly agree to facilitate sex abuse of minors”. Only the poor or poorly educated behave badly. We can see the flaw in such reasoning, even before you get to the insult it delivers to all those who endured great privation, emotional or material, without becoming abusers. And yet, the absence of easy answers does not give us a licence to stop asking hard questions. We need to be able to stare wicked acts and evil deeds in the face, rather than to comfort ourselves that they exist solely as functions of failed systems, errors that could be eliminated given the right policy tweak’.
There are many interesting (if unsavoury) aspects to this case but I find myself interested in two particularly: who is paying Andrew’s legal bills (if the Queen, as widely reported, what kind of message does this convey?); and the fact that the longstanding assumption of those in high places including the royals that they are protected from the law clearly is not cutting ice with the US judiciary. Whatever the outcome is, though, it doesn’t augur well for the Prince’s future and quality of life, especially when it is eventually no longer possible to hide behind his mother. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for the decision Judge Kaplan on Tuesday would come ‘soon’, as to whether a settlement agreement between convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and Ms Giuffre offered the prince protection from her legal action against him. There’s speculation that Andrew will try to settle out of court in order to avoid a trial, but whether or not this transpires, his role in public life is surely at an end.
This is the time of year when some will already have abandoned New Year’s Resolutions and I’ve long believed it’s best not to make such a big deal of it but to be aiming at various desired improvements incrementally and throughout the year. The fable of the tortoise and hare comes to mind. It’s also important to watch out for the many wanting to make money out of us to implement said resolutions, and while some external input can be useful, we do really have to rely primarily on our own motivation and application. A lighthearted look at how to make improvements ‘without really trying’ proves an interesting and refreshing read, recommending amongst other things trying to read a poem a day, be polite to rude people, take Twitter off your phone, drop your shoulders, always take something to a dinner party even when told not to, plant bulbs, have a cold shower before your hot one, don’t save clothes for best, wear them and enjoy them, unsubscribe from unwanted emails (usually retailers?) give compliments widely and freely, do that one thing you’ve been putting off, and make a friend from a different generation. See what you think!
It’s also useful to see what ten books about self-improvement are suggested by a cultural historian – some going way back, such as Meditations, by Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180), who believed that all suffering is in our minds. Importantly, this article strikes a balance between those who argue that the concept of ‘self-improvement’ is a cynical by-product of capitalism (the industry is valued at £8bn globally) and those who appreciate its long history, recognising a universal wish ‘for self-knowledge, for mastery and for transformation. It is a timeless desire and an essential part of what makes us human’.
Finally, having enjoyed the fascinating and elegiac documentary The Truffle Hunters, about how this ancient tradition of searching for rare and expensive truffles is pursued deep in the forests of Piedmont, Italy, it was pleasing to learn that truffle hunting has now been recognised by Unesco as an ‘intangible cultural asset’. Italian truffle hunters apparently campaigned for 8 years for this recognition, the practice being described as being ‘marked by a special relationship with nature in a rite that is rich with anthropological and cultural aspects’. We’re told that that Italy has more than 70,000 hunters (interesting the market can support this many in Italy alone!), many having learned the whereabouts and the skills to extract the truffles from their parents and grandparents. I’d not previously heard of Unesco’s intangible cultural assets list and it’s interesting to learn that Italy has 15, including the art of dry stone walling, Neapolitan wood-fired pizza making and ‘religious processions incorporating shoulder-borne structures’. Perusing Unesco’s list makes interesting reading!